Attentive JWN readers will know that recently I’ve been doing some thinking about the proposition that over recent years, foreign wars may well have become unwinnable.
Of course, once enough people become convinced that foreigns wars are unwinnable, then they also should become unwageable… and the nations of the world would have to strengthen all their other, non-military ways of resolving differences, and cut back on military spending considerably…
I note that while my own analysis of the unwinnability question is based mainly on the US’s experience in Iraq since 2003 and Israel’s in Lebanon in 2006, Bill the spouse has also suggested that the unwinnability of foreign wars can be identified much earlier than that, including back to Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Or why not his 1980 invasion of Iran, perhaps?
Be that as it may… One response I’ve received from some people to the proposition about unwinnability has been, “Well maybe so… but you’ve only been talking about non-nuclear wars… so if it’s those that are unwinnable doesn’t that just increase the incentive for states to acquire nuclear weapons?”
Well, I’ve done a bunch of thinking about nuclear weapons, too, in various contexts over the years; much of it back in the 1980s when for a few years I was a member of something called the Washington Council on Non-Proliferation. (Does that still exist? This report says not.) So I kept that “nuclear” objection to my unwinnability thesis tucked into the back of my mind. And last week, when I saw a notice that the New America Foundation was sponsoring a talk on the topic of “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima,” I hurried along there.
The presenter was Ward Wilson, an independent scholar who recently won a prize for the essay he wrote on this topic– which has also, incidentally, been published here (PDF).
And here, btw, is Wilson’s own blog post recording the event, which has a link to the video record of the discussion.
If you’re interested in nuclear weapons, or particularly in nuclear disarmament, it is definitely worthwhile watching the video that’s accessible there, which is posted on YouTube and runs 1 hour 16 mins.
Ward made a handful of extremely thought-provoking and useful arguments that basically attacked the notion that nuclear weapons have military utility.
His first argument was based on a close re-reading of the historical record of the Japanese government’s decision-making in the days leading up to and right after Truman’s use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He took on the commonly-told “story” in the US is that the use of the A-bombs (while highly regrettable etc etc) did nonetheless succeed in persuading the Japanese government to issue a speedy notice of surrender— and thereby also saved the lives of the thousands of US servicemen who could otherwise have been expected to die in a continuation of the island-hopping advance toward Tokyo. Ward’s conclusion, using the Japanese record, is that it was Russia’s entry into the war in Asia, which happened a few days after the bombing of Hiroshima, that was far more important in persuading– or as he says, “coercing”– the Japan authorities to surrender.
He used another line of argument, too, one based on a number of technical military considerations. What was aimed at with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said, was city destruction, with the aim that seeing the destruction of entire cities would so “shock” (and perhaps also “awe”?) Japan’s national command authorities that they would immediately capitulate and sue for surrender. But, he argued, Japan had already seen worse destruction of cities in the weeks preceding Hiroshima, achieved through the US firebombing of cities. And moreover, throughout history, he argued, the destruction of cities has not been strategically decisive.
(I hope readers here are seeing the connections and parallels with my own writing about the Israeli bombing of Beirut, etc.)
Regarding the military utility of nuclear weapons, he said,
- Basically, there are two problems with nuclear weapons: they are too big, and they leave poison wherever they are used.
He drew a great comparison with chariots, which he depicted as kind of the “shock and awe” weapons of their day. He said that, while they may have “shocked and awed” the peasants of the societies where they were used (while also, I might add, amply expressing and feeding the grandiosity of the military leaders who raced around in them) still, their actual military utility was extremely low.
To illustrate this, he showed a bas-relief of a charioteer trying to use a bow and arrow as he rode into battle. The guy, using a bow and arrow to be able to project his ordnance against the enemy, had to use both hands to do that– and had left the reins of the chariot tied around his waist. “So essentially,” Ward said, “he was out of control.”
A great analogy.
And the reason the charioteer chose to use a bow and arrow was that he could not easily or effectively use a sword or spear against his opponents, given that having two horses pull the chariot gave it considerable width, keeping him from getting up close to the foe. (The size issue, there.)
The other great analogy that Ward used for nuclear weapons was the idea– expressed at around 53 minutes into the YouTube video– that we should think of nuclear weapons as being like hanging a bottle of nitroglycerine on a string in the family’s kitchen, as a way of “deterring” the entry or activities of burglars. “Just the idea that you are fearful as you and your family creep around the bottle hanging there doesn’t prove that it’s effective!”
Anyway, it was a great presentation; and the article and video are great, too. I am so glad I went. The only troubling thing that happened was that there was a smart, well-informed Japanese scholar in the audience, too– a woman who grew up in Hiroshima and teaches at a Japanese university, who is here in the US for the summer… And I think that Ward and the (also male) chair of the session treated her rather harshly at the end for trying to finish the entirely reasonable point she was trying to make about the US public and leaders preferring to believe that the bombing of Hiroshima had had military/strategic utility because of their reluctance to face up to the horrendous humanitarian disaster it had caused. Honestly, I can’t imagine a Holocaust survivor ever being treated in such a fashion in a public gathering; and I found their accusations that she was too “emotional” (or “passionate”) quite unwarranted.
But in general, as I said, a really helpful presentation. Ward made a whole bunch more good points there that I haven’t had time to write about here.